Isle of Dogs Review: A Ruff-around-the-edges treat for humans of all breeds

No Spoilers in this Review

Isle of Dogs is a surreal treat for humans of all breeds. Could this stop-motion dog-themed movie set in a future Japan be the flick to get the mercurial Wes Anderson some long-awaited mainstream adoration?

I saw this film at a Preview Screening at a local Picturehouse Cinema, the fantastic CinemaCity in Norwich.

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A cute canine cast – from Metro Weekly Full Link

Plot and Themes (No Spoilers)

The plot, as already outlined in the trailer, centres around a young boy called Atari who arrives on an island full of junk to find his lost dog Spots. It’s not a simple boy-and-dog story, however as Wes Anderson and his writing collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwarzmann have created a pacy critique on contemporary political lunacy set 20 years in the future. The underlying premise is that a disease called Dog Flu forces a Japanese provincial government to quarantine and remove all canines from the mainland. Atari ends up befriending a group of dogs on this Trash Island, including a lovingly characterised antihero called Chief, a stray voiced by Bryan Cranston. The rest of the story mixes broadish political commentary brush-strokes with heartstring-tugging momentsin a beautifully-realised world which left me itching to stay in my seat for another viewing.

The dogs speak American English, though the humans in Megasaki speak Japanese using simple expressions (and no subtitles) which are designed for the viewer to “get the gist of”. This is a fascinating idea which almost works, though there just doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. I do wonder whether Anderson could have predicted the social media uproar about stereotyping Japanese culture, however well-intentioned his homage appears to be.

Cultural appropriation aside, it is hard to avoid the word “quirky” when describing a Wes Anderson flick, and yes the film does have an eccentric narrative. But this is the closest I’ve ever felt emotionally engaged with a Wes Anderson film, where often I find his style and worldview a little too idiosyncratic to fully embrace the immersion his worlds entreat. In this offering, however, the emotional core of the film is studiously crafted, from the relationships between the human characters and between human and dog. There were a few sniffles in the theater.

Visuals
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A panorama of Megasaki – from It’s Nice That Full Link

The stop-motion visuals are, predictably, stunning to look at. Anderson brought over a sizeable portion of the visuals team from his first animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox to create a fictional Megasaki City using 240 sets and 130,000 stills. The result is a beautifully handmade-style film, and even the piles of garbage in Trash Island conjure a minimalist beauty. Together with more standard cartoon animated elements used for television clips and intriguing takes on classic Japanese artwork seen in various backdrops, this film really is gorgeous to look at.

As with Anderson’s previous work, everything on screen has been meticulously selected for inclusion. Even if the amount of content on the screen is often Spartan, there is still not enough time to take in all the little screen delights, so most viewers will be looking forward to DVD and Blu-Ray releases in order to ingest all the delicious treats that Wes Anderson throws.

Performances
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A typically stellar group of actors for Wes Anderson – From Foxsearchlight.com Full Link

This director knows a lot of people. The cast-list for Wes Anderson films can be farcically imposing, and this film is true to form. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton… you get the picture. Special praise must go to young Canadian Koyu Rankin for his performance as 12-year-old Atari. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the voices of the actors resonate through the animated characters they portray and each role appears to be hand-crafted for the voice talent.

Soundtrack

If I’ve made it clear that the first star of this film are the visuals, the second is the music. There are classic tracks from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel films, together with psychedelic rock and swing jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. These are the dressing for a stunning original score from Alexandre Desplat, who just won an Oscar for his work on The Shape of Water. If you’ve heard his name prior to that, he also won an Oscar with another Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Taiko Drumming provides the centrepiece for the score, although there are some whimsical forays into dreamlike electronic music and more jazzy interludes. It is a triumph

Quirks
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Pro-Dog protestors in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki – from technobuffalo.com Full link

The oddities in Wes Anderson films often provoke reactions similar to those toward a yeast extract spread. This film gave me moments of intense pleasure and annoyance, with the balance strongly in favour of the former. His labelling of items on the screen was pure pleasure for a cataloguing aficianado. As were the bizarre moments when characters wistfully looked into the distance. This happened once in the Fantastic Mr. Fox film when Mr.Fox suddenly stares at a wolf for no solid narrative reason. Why not? Similar scenes exist in this film, though not as indiscriminately.

Less successful was the reliance on sudden camera movements in the early parts of the film, whereby the only angle in which characters’ heads could move was 90 degrees, and usually in the direction of the viewer. It was the cinematic equivalent of the non-existent word überkook.

Overall
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Atari looks back at Rex, Boss and King – from thatericalper.com Full link

Anderson’s second animated offering is a cut above his first. It is a genuinely beautiful film which provides a lot of treats, though is ruff around the edges. The clumsy cultural tourism is outweighed by stunning visuals, fantastic performances and a beautiful soundtrack. Barring an upset, this ought to win the first Academy Award for Wes Anderson in 2019.

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The Value of Norouz – A 3000-year old festival of rebirth

Today marks the first day of Norouz (also spelt Norooz, Nawruz, Nowruz), the Iranian and Central Asian New Year, which has been celebrated for millenia. Now, more than ever, we need to treasure this ancient celebration of renewal. Here is my article on this celebration, together with some photos I have taken from Iran.

Lentil sprouts and hyacinths at a roadside stall in Tehran, Iran

In Iran, poetry remains an important and relevant part of cultural life and is a ubiquitous part of the Norouz festival. The patron poet of Norouz is the 14th century mystic “safe-keeper” Hafez, who was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a poet for poets”. Hafez often used wine as a metaphor for love, and during Norouz a book of his poems often has a prominent place on the Haft-seen (the tabletop arrangement of symbolic items). Indeed his words in verse have never seemed more apt.

Whether raising themes of love and devotion “The sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that… it lights up the whole sky” or a message of hope “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being”, his philosophy of the spirit of love underlines the value of Norouz, a celebration of renewal which has spanned countless nationalities and religions and is a vestige of a primordial harmony which seems increasingly besieged in today’s world.

Norouz itself literally means “New Day” and coincides with the arrival of spring. It is celebrated on the same day as the pagan festival Ostara, and the roots of Norouz lie in ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. The festival is likely to have been arisen in the Achaemenid era (The sixth century BC), and it is a testament to its cultural importance that it has endured such longevity over three millenia. It is a public holiday in thirteen countries, and is also celebrated worldwide by the diaspora from those countries, together with Kurds, Parsis and followers of the Baha’i faith. In Iran, the celebration is largely frowned upon by the ruling clerics. As it predates Islam by over a millennium, Norouz is seen by many in the theocratic regime as a pagan ritual.

Decorated eggs at a roadside shop in Tehran, Iran

Norouz is a time for family and friendship. In most homes, the beginning of the festival comprises an intense period of spring-cleaning and preparation for feasts and exchange of gifts. People are expected to pay house visits to each other and check on each others’ health, meaning that an endless supply of pastry, cookies, nuts and fruits are required. The spirit of reconciliation also means that this is a time to heal wounds new and old, and the practice of holding grudges during this period is considered a bad omen.

A central component of Norouz is the Haft-Seen table spread, with items chosen which each symbolise a particular theme:

A simple norouz haftsin for a family home

The core tenets of the haft-seen are literally seven (haft) S’s (words which begin with S) and are: Sabzeh, a lentil sprouts growing in a dish, representing rebirth. Samanu, a sweet wheatgerm-derived pudding representing wealth and abudance. Senjed, a dried Persian olive which represents love. Seer, garlic which represents good health. Seeb, an apple which represents virality. Sumac, which represents sunrise or the victory of light over dark and Serkeh, vinegar, which represents patients and wisdom.

Alongside these core components, other common items include a mirror with two candles, the poetry book of Hafez or the Shanmaheh, a holy book such as the Quran, Avesta, Bible or Torah, painted eggs, a bowl of water with a goldfish, a hyacinth and various other sweets. In addition, it is not uncommon for each home to introduce their own take, with items that are important for them.

Sprouts and hyacinths in bunny pots

The celebrations last thirteen days, and on the last day an extra celebration known as Sizdah Bedar (literally thirteenth outdoors) happens whereby families and friends spend all day outdoors in nature, and childrens’ play, music and dancing takes place. Traditionally, the leaves of the greenery are tied with a whisper by young singletons expressing a wish to find a partner, and then they are discarded.

A Half-Seen in the State Dining Room of George W. Bush’s White House, 2008 (TOP PHOTO). A spread from Secretary of State John Kerry’s office in 2015 (BOTTOM PHOTO)

Regardless of the ceremonies in Norouz, its themes are universal. In a world where anger and fear seems to be increasingly prospering over love and hope, let us find some optimism in this transcendental celebration of new possibilities and new life which has not only survived, but prospered, through the centuries.

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Playing The Clarinet For Stephen Hawking

This article is my own, and I published it in the Huffington Post today:

Professor Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the New York Times:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

This encapsulates both his tremendous sense of humour, and the immense success of his many personal and professional endeavours over the physical limitations of Motor Neurone Disease.

I was fortunate to study in the same college where Stephen Hawking worked as a Fellow: walking past his office on the way to dinner, sometimes eating in the same hall. It always felt surreal to live and study in the same place as this scientific luminary, and I spent many awe-struck dinners manoeuvring through the long students’ tables in a rather unseemly way so that I could catch a glimpse at how he uses his computer-based communication system.

Every so often, he used to join the students in the college bar where he might have been sipping a soft drink or talking to students.  It took a few terms to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with him, and he graciously obliged. Indeed, Professor Hawking never gave the impression of an aloof celebrity scientist, he always seemed to be an authentically down-to-earth man who appreciated life and the people around him.

His self-deferential style of comedy is a feature of his many cameos on popular television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and Futurama. He knowingly portrayed himself as a petty, self-important egotist in these and routinely stole the show. One of his funniest recent gigs was his retort to satirist John Oliver’s question “Does that mean that there is a universe our there where I am smarter than you”was “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny”.

Nevertheless, arguably the greatest testament to his character remains how he tirelessly fought over the last few years in support of the National Health Service. His robust defence of the NHS, without which he said “I wouldn’t be here today” turned to a clinical attack of politicians in a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine where he warned of a “US-style insurance system” being brought about by ministers cutting funds and privatising the healthcare service. Alongside the NHS, he also battled to safeguard science funding and recruitment following the UK’s EU referendum decision. As I work in medicine, this elevated his status in my mind from a hero to a kind of mythic entity: he was spending his sunset years fighting for what he believed was right, with the fire in his soul burning brighter than ever.

“The NHS is Britain’s finest public service and the cornerstone of our society. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.”

My most vivid memory of Professor Hawking is from playing clarinet in a College Orchestra concert during my first term. I had been tasked with performing the solo from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, but had not quite expected Stephen Hawking to be sitting directly opposite me. My nerves combined with a lazy embouchure and resulted in a largely squeaked segment, which seemed to last an eternity. I looked at Professor Hawking but could not deduce his thoughts as I massacred a classic English piece in my first (and last) performance.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

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Book Review – “Leaving Megalopolis”. What happens when superheroes turn bad?

After reviewing the fantastic graphic novel The Beautiful Death here I thought to continue with another 5-part comic I read two days ago called Leaving Megalopolis, a 2014 book from Gail Simone.

Leaving Megalopolis: When heroes turn bad. From: Dark Horse Comics

Superhero comic books, when told from the perspective of the ordinary civilian, can be outstanding work like Kurt Busiek’s Marvels series which followed photographer Phil Sheldon as he documented this brave new era. However I do find the additional hook of superheroes turning evil a guilty pleasure, and Leaving Megalopolis follows this theme.

The benchmark for me is the plot, though not the execution, of the Injustice book from DC, a comic series which was spun out of a computer game. The central premise of Injustice is that that Superman loses his head when Gotham’s Joker destroys Metropolis with a nuke and kills Lois Lane and his unborn son. Superman sets up a totalitarian state to bring about order and the story features the rebellion against his fascist rule.

Not all the heroes in that book are “bad” though. Perhaps the most similar comic to Leaving Megalopolis is The Boys from Garth Ennis which portrays a world where superheroes have been corrupted by their celebrity and their increasingly thoughtless and rash actions require a secret taskforce to monitor and deal with. I enjoyed the over-the-top nature of the book though the protagonists were rather stereotyped (The affable Scot, the Cockney geezer, the French one (who was called “Frenchie”) etc….). It isn’t a classic by any means, but it is entertaining fluff.

Heroes of Leaving Megalopolis – Do you recognise any of them? From: Dark Horse Comics

Leaving Megalopolis features even more unhinged superheroes who have unaccountably turned into deranged murderers after encountering an alien. It is unashamedly violent, akin to The Boys, and also sends up popular superhero teams (think Avengers or Justice League) in similarly dark ways. We follow a group of protagonists who want to escape the city of Megalopolis where these superheroes reside. The sense of horror is real, though I did feel that the characters were not as memorable as I might have hoped, with the exception of main protagonist Mina and her cliffhanger leaving the possibility of a sequel. I found the art unsettling in a way that mirrored the palpable tension in the writing, in particular the rage of the superheroes and their glee in causing chaos.

The survivors in Leaving Megalopolis. From: Dark Horse Comics

The main criticism was that I wanted the characters to be fleshed out more. Often certain features of plot were insinuated but there did not seem to be any follow-up, for example there is a hint that one of the band of survivors has done something bad previously, but we never find out what it might be and the book becomes sympathetic towards him. I enjoy mystery and complex characters, but perhaps there was a bit too much shrouding in all but the main character Mina.

Nevertheless, if you do enjoy your stories dark and your worlds dystopic, I recommend that you check this series out, particularly if you enjoy the theme of corrupted heroes.

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Film Review – Black Panther

No significant spoilers in this review

I just saw the latest offering in the Marvel stable in IMAX 3D – Black Panther. Alongside Moon Knight and Hank Pym (who both suffer from inner demons), I’ve found the challenges of Black Panther one of the most interesting in the Marvel comics universe. Chiefly, his turmoil as he struggles with the duties of a king and his own personal values as a person and responsibilities to the world as a whole.

Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. Source: Marvel.com

This is explored deftly in the new film, which gives us a socio-political quandary right at the beginning – can the isolated secret technology-rich African nation of Wakanda accept responsibility to the rest of the world (and its own continent) and open up, using its resources to help other peoples? It’s a real-life problem that many countries face, and is rendered more stark by the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is surrounded by poor neighbours.

Map and Location of Wakanda. Source: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #12 (December 1983).

This is a great popcorn film, full of well-choreographed action sequences, stunning costumes and beautiful cinematography and computer-generated imagery. In particular, the combination of these during the fights in water at a cliff-edge were pure eye candy. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed looking at a film so much, and the key feature here is the balance: there is never too much to see on the screen, but just enough for one to appreciate. I would highly recommend watching this film on an IMAX rather than standard screen, although the 3D elements of the film weren’t particularly crucial to the experience.

Cliff Edge water fight scene. Source: Nerdist.com, Marvel.com

The performances in the film were decent, though not perfect. Chadwick Boseman was very good as T’Challa, as were Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as his warrior queen and general respectively. I didn’t quite find Letitia Wright’s Shuri as convincing, but that may be personal taste as she is a good actress in other films I’ve seen. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi was outstanding, and this actor is quickly showing the range in his performances – from an excellent Black Mirror episode, to Sicario, to Get Out and now this performance laiden with subtleties. He’s come a looooong way since playing a pretty stereotyped London Nigerian parking attendant in Harry and Paul. I’ve loved Martin Freeman since his role in the UK’s Office but I found his Everett Ross performance a bit ham-fisted. Andy Serkis was outstandingly over the top as Ulysses Klaue and you can’t help to think he is wasted in his many motion capture roles, I want to see him on-screen! He reminded me of Sharlto Copley in District 9 except even more unhinged. Michael B Jordan as the thuggist Killmonger didn’t do it for me as a principal antagonist – I never felt invested in the character and why he turned out as he did, and was left thinking “What if Daniel Kaluuya had played this role…”. But this is a minor gripe given the variety of great performances throughout the cast.

Cast of Black Panther. Source: www.facebook.com/MarvelCinematicUniverse

My only other criticism of the film was that the humour wasn’t as up-there as I thought it would be – there was a particularly weak joke about “sneakers” which I’m sure was intended to be funny but the cinema was silent. This could be because I had been spoilt by Taika Waititi’s outstanding Thor:Ragnarok which had me in stitches from the beginning to the end. But the themes in this film are, perhaps, such that comedy isn’t really an important element to the story, whereas the third Thor outing had invested itself in being a comedy showpiece, which is executed expertly. In any case, I can’t complain as both films, and indeed so many of the recent Marvel Cinematic offerings, were pure entertainment. Indeed, this studio is struggling to put a foot wrong, with the exception of the absolutely awful Inhumans series.

I would thoroughly recommend this film as a piece of entertainment with some interesting questions throughout.

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Book Review – “The Beautiful Death”: A fantastic graphic novel

I enjoy reading, and love tucking into my Kindle after a long day’s work. However, when I really want to treat myself I like to read Graphic Novels. I offer to the reader that this medium can provide unique experiences through a combination of word and artwork, and should be judged separately from classical literature.

The Beautiful Death from Titan Comics

As I love tales of dystopian or post-apocalyptic words, I chanced upon “The Beautiful Death”, a new 5-part series from French creator Mathieu Bablet. This is titled La Belle Mort in French, which undoubtedly sounds more enticing. I glanced at a few scenes and was immediately reminded of some classic horror manga by the Japanese legend which is Kazuo Umezu, as well as the great Junji Ito.

Basically, this is a tale set on our planet, where insects of varying sizes have taken over and humanity, as we know it, has ended. We follow three survivors who are trying to survive in this desolate world, as they follow and repeat their routine of finding a shop or home to get some canned food. They haven’t met anyone else in a long time.

Giant alien caterpillars? Source: Titan Comics

I won’t give much else of the plot away, suffice to say that it is gripping and the relationship between the characters grabs you from the beginning. What I love about this story, and indeed much Japanese manga, is that you can’t take anything for granted. The world and the protagonists are never black-and-white, but multiple shades of grey. Perhaps this is often missing in other graphic novels where there is often a hero we need to “root” for.


A desolate world awaits you. Source: Titan Comics

The world depicted in both the writing and the illustrations is barren and isolating, and the choices that the characters have to make are equally stark, leaving a “What would you do” theme throughout. The finale to the book left me gasping and has stayed with me for a while. In fact, it has rekindled my love of short-series books, as one can pick them up and finish them in an evening in the time it takes to watch a movie. I’m going to look out for this author in future, and indeed he has opened my eyes to other French artists in this medium.

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